A State of Mind is a spectacular documentary because of the inside view it affords of the rigorously sequestered North
Korean state. Filmmaker Daniel Gordon has an instinct for cinematic essentials, effectively employing aerial views and wide-angle shots to underscore mammoth events. He reveals his subjects without judgment, bearing witness to warm, child-centered family life and kids at normal play – in the “model” capital city of Pyongyang.

Gordon, a former British television sports journalist, gained the trust of the North Koreans in filming his first documentary, The Game of Their Lives, a 2002 release about the improbable run of the North Korean soccer team in the 1966 World Cup.

A State of Mind focuses on two gymnasts, 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and her 11-year-old friend Kim Sung Yun. Although Hyon’s father is a laborer and Sung’s is a physicist (both mothers are housewives), their families live similar lifestyles.

The film follows the girls as they rehearse for the Mass Games, a periodic extravaganza employing tens of thousands of performers. The painstakingly choreographed spectacle celebrates the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its Dear Leader Kim Jung Il – who doesn’t show up for any of the performances – and his deceased father, Kim Il Sung, the nation’s charismatic founder.

Parents and grandparents mouth the same sticky sentiments about the father and the son whose portraits adorn family rooms like religious icons. When the Kim family mugs with a microphone, they sing patriotic songs. Dinner conversation is peppered with angry or mocking statements about America and its nearby military bases, and North
Korean pride and preparedness for the worst. At a museum, we see graphic depictions of the devastating mid-century war the U.S. waged on the Korean peninsula, claiming millions of lives.

We see little of more recent tragedy, however, namely the massive famines that swept the dilapidated North during the 1990s. One member of a farming cooperative insists fiercely on selfreliance even in the worst of circumstances. This, and the sad testimony of a mother about the period of meager food rations, is evidently the closest Gordon could get to starvation and death. Even now, families privileged to live in modest government apartments in Pyongyang are limited for protein to one chicken and five eggs per person per month.

The film accompanies the girls on family excursions, to rehearsals, school and to Mount Paektu, sacred for its mythological status as the birthplace of the Korean people. A State of Mind captures the brilliant color and fantastic choreographic and physical feats of the pageants, contrasting it to Pyongyang’s drab, architecturally undistinguished buildings and gargantuan Socialist Realist artworks.

A State of Mind is available on DVD at www.astateofmind.co.uk.